Going for the gold. Sandy black sludge is pay dirt for Finland's champion panners

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SOME 30 contestants sit squarely on low benches around the perimeter of a 10-by-30-foot pool of shallow water at Tankav"a"ara's Hopia Stream. Pans in laps, buckets of sand behind them, they eye the rustic fellow who stands poised, holding steel pan and hammer in the air. He opens his mouth; they grip their pans. ``Ready, set . . . ,'' and with a crash in the pan the race is on.

Participants hoist their buckets, dumping sand into pans. Rubber boots in the water, knees wide apart, they throw their shoulders forward and plunge their pans into the stream. After plucking out large pieces of gravel and breaking up lumps of clay, each raises his pan to the surface and begins the circular slosh-jerk-slosh motion that sounds like percussionists steel-brushing their drums. If done correctly, this motion stirs up muck and light sand until it washes over the edge of the pan, leaving a promising residue of gold particles glinting through black sand.

One by one, the fortunate washers extract gold bits and pop them into three-inch vials. ``Hup!'' each hollers, swinging his pan high overhead in celebration, before running the vial over to judges for inspection.

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The tournament is taking place in the wee village of Tankav"a"ara, 230 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the heart of Finnish Lapland. This is Finland's national competition, and the winners go on to the ninth annual world championship, held this year in Genoa, Italy. In fact, Tankav"a"ara itself often hosts the world finals, since this is where it all began.

This is a region relatively poor in pay dirt, but rich in wishful thinking. The territory unabashedly boasts the nickname ``Kultula'' or Gold Land, even though it has yielded no more than 21/2 tons of the shiny stuff in the century since engineer J. C. Lihr first saw something glitter in the Ivalo River. Lihr's find sparked an 1870 rush of 600 would-be gold miners who did not realize the Ivalo would put more fish meat in their bellies than gold grains in their pockets. In their first and ult imately most productive year, these panners collectively scratched a mere 125 pounds of the gold from Kultula's stingy stream. That annual haul, and every one since, pales when compared with the yearly outputs of today's top gold producers -- South Africa, at 655 tons; the Soviet Union, 312; and Canada, 64. Juxtaposing Lapland's figures with these is, to use gold-nugget jargon, like comparing a nit to a whopper.

Although Finnish Lapland lured far fewer prospectors than the other 19th-century rushes to California, Klondike, and Witwatersrand, each of which drew thousands of miners, gold fever here has proved as durable as the metal itself. When strikes along the Ivalo petered out, a few die-hard dreamers kept exploring until someone made a find along the Lemmen River and kicked off a new rush. Every 20 years or so prospectors found a new carat waving in front of their noses, beckoning them to keep sloshing. Most

inspiring was Eevert Kiviniemi's record-holding 395-gram nugget, found at the Lutto River in 1935.

The World Gold Panning Championship owes its origin to two seasoned Finnish prospectors, Niilo Raumala and Yrjo Korhonen. In the 1960s, the price of gold dropped enough to make these veterans pull up their 20-year Lemmen River stakes and head south to Tankav"a"ara, where folks had panned sporadically for 30 years or so. There, a nugget's throw from the newly constructed Route 4, these fellows started a makeshift business, showing tourists and passers-by how to wash for gold. Enthusiasts trickled in and

panned with everything from salad bowls to woks. Kauko Launonen, a telegraph engineer who panned for fun, was a frequent visitor. In 1972 he gave up his engineering career, moved to Tankav"a"ara, and began a partnership with the two old gents.

Says Mr. Launonen, talking through his long dark beard and under his vintage black derby: ``We decided to design a better place for visitors. I built cabins and started a coffee shop'' -- which now serves reindeer meat and potatoes on plates that look like gold pans. Eventually Launonen helped pave the way for building a gold museum, restoring old prospector camps and setting up the annual championship.

``In 1974 we wanted to raise money for a Prospectors' Hall in Inari, 50 kilometers [30 miles] north -- a place where retired miners could stay. We decided to hold the championship to raise money.'' About that time, then-President Urho Kekkonen, eager to show his country's adventurous side to some visiting dignitaries, followed up on a tip to take his guests north to hobnob with Mr. Raumala and Mr. Korhonen. The news media, ever on the President Kekkonen's trail, got wind of Tankav"a"ara, the championsh ip received lots of publicity, and crowds of people rushed to the event. A second tournament was held the next year. By 1976 foreigners were arriving on the scene. And in 1977, the first world championship took place. According to Launonen, 13 nationalities took part in the hoopla, ``from as far away as New Zealand, Brazil, and the United States.''

The world competition has since been moved to other locales, but Tankav"a"ara is still home to the Finnish national tournament. For four damp August days, there is more rain gear than reindeer, and competitors wear their pans as rain hats. Nonetheless, nearly 1,000 spectators and competitors are here for the festivities.

In preparation for the event, hundreds of plastic buckets are filled with sand, gravel, and a secret number of gold particles. The object of the tournament is, of course, to use pan and water to wash away the dirt and unearth the gold. The fastest panner who doesn't lose a smidgen of the precious metal wins. Participants are divided into categories: beginners, children under 15, amateur men, amateur women, and veterans. The top three winners in each group receive gold, silver, and bronze medals. The vic tor of the veteran group wins a trip to the world competition in Italy.

When the beginners slosh, scores of gold flakes float into the murky, stirred-up water bed. Many get to the bottom of their pans and find nothing. But when the veterans step forward, not a fleck of gold is lost. This is the crowd-pleasing heat, attracting old-timers like ``Gold Yrjo,'' famous for the 44 pounds he has panned in his life, and for the number of pans he has worn out.

In 11 decades of gold fever, only a handful of Kultula prospectors have been able to write ``gold miner'' on their tax forms. At best, these panners have found enough gold dust to buy summer groceries and autumn vacations. But never mind. This is a place replete with legends of elves and gnomes; a region officially dubbed ``Santa Claus Land'' by its governor, Asko Oinas; a territory in which reindeer-herding Lapps trace their ancestry to shamans like Akmeeli, whose imagination stretched so far that he t hought he could achieve eternal life by having himself buried alive. In a land like this, fantasy runs rampant, disappointments are rarely deep, and a few nuggets of gold go a long way.

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